Customers are first in your firewall

Customers are first in your firewall

Have you ever thought about what your intranet looks like from outside the firewall? In particular, I'd like to consider what kinds of functions your Internet presence can offer your customers and potential customers.

As you read through this, remember that the discussion applies to intranets as well as public Web sites. For most companies, customers are found both outside your building as well as a few desks away from your own. The range of capabilities your site offers should be helpful to internal and external customers alike.

Of the many capabilities that might be included in an online customer service centre, none are more important than being able to report problems and being able to check the status of your reports later. It's an age-old situation: you encounter a problem with a service or product, file a complaint with the company, and then your complaint seems to vanish into the netherworld. Was it read and sent to the appropriate person? Was it circular-filed? You'll never know.

But if you receive a unique tracking number for each problem, bug, and enhancement request you file, then suddenly you're empowered. You can actually track what's going on and find out the status of your report at any time.

This principle can apply more generally, too. Federal Express gives you the opportunity to type in an airbill number and get an up-to-date report on the location of the specified package. It's a wonderful service and one that I highly recommend you explore. It's also a very good demonstration of how you can let customers interact with your internal corporate database systems without requiring them to learn anything about SQL or the oddities of your database front ends.

Self-updating databases

Often companies keep a database of customers (or, for that matter, a database of employees) that is used for mailings, targeted sales offers, or simply for demographic analysis. The problem is, when something in that data set is incorrect, it can be quite problematic to figure out how to get things fixed and updated. This presents another ideal use of an online customer service centre: let customers or employees correct their own records - even invite them to add additional information that can be useful in your demographic analyses.

For example, on a contact update form for external customers, you might include survey questions about the type of computers they have, size of their company, number of employees, experience level of their technical team, type of business, and so forth.

Even if only 10 per cent of your customers ever answer these questions, it's still valuable data for next to no cost. Want to improve response rates? Why not offer something free, such as a software upgrade, to motivate them?

Of course, an online customer service centre can also be a valuable place to disseminate information. According to studies I've read, 90 per cent of calls made to customer service hotlines are reporting problems that have already been solved for another caller. If you can create a smart problem-and-solution query system for customers, you can dramatically reduce the number of calls to customer hotlines.

How are you using your corporate Internet and intranet presence to help your external and internal customers?

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